Hi. I’m the writer from blue milk and I’m thrilled to be writing at Feministe. I write about motherhood from a feminist perspective and I sometimes write for the Australian feminist group blog, Hoyden About Town and other times I write for a couple of mainstream commercial publications. I also work half the week as an economist but I don’t know anything about personal budgets, sorry, as evidenced by my own household budgeting, which is woeful; so, if the figure doesn’t involve at least $100 million then I’m clueless.
I write about juggling work and family, about art and pop culture, about sex and arguments with my partner, about a bunch of traditional feminist topics like rape, breastfeeding, abortion, and the sexualisation of little girls, and I also write about politics. By and large, my writing is pitched squarely within the framework of motherhood and technically, I think this probably makes me a ‘mummy blogger’. I’m not all that offended by the term. I can see that it’s meant to be somewhat insulting, even children get embarrassed calling you ‘Mummy’ once they get to school, it is just that I am too tired to care. And there is a part of me that feels if a label is stigmatised like that then maybe it’s worth defending. After all, the belittling of mummy blogging has a lot in common with the ways in which mothers are marginalised.
There’s a lot we could do to improve the public discussion of motherhood but here is where I would start. We would not be so judgemental towards mothers if we recognised that mothering is work. If you aren’t yet able to accept mothering as work then you have some reading to do – it will involve economics and history. Start with the emergence of industrialisation when family work first became invisible. And if you can’t see that breastfeeding a baby was every bit as important as collecting firewood for family survival, then keep reading back through feudalism. But once you knock that patriarchal lens of distortion from your eyes you will never see mothers and children quite the same way again. Everywhere you look you will see something a little bit horrifying – hours and hours and hours and hours of unpaid labour. It is work performed very often with love; it is work with possibilities of personal reward and great satisfaction, much like some other jobs, except it is unpaid.
We would have better public policy and better rights for women if we were able to acknowledge more honestly that capitalism is not a marketplace, it is rather, a system that involves the intersection of the market with government, families and communities. We are talking about the greatest heist in capitalist history, because it is estimated that unpaid work in the USA amounts to 50 per cent of all hours of work performed. Imagine any other resource vanishing from the national spreadsheet like that. Capitalism, in its present form, could not survive without that unpaid support. It is not mothers who are draining the system, it is mothers and carers who are propping up the system.
I don’t want to over-complicate what is supposed to just be an introductory post here, but it says something about living in a patriarchy that we would have women specialise in a very demanding area of work that is both vitally important to us and utterly worthless in terms of monetary compensation, doesn’t it?
And there’s lots of other stuff to consider – children are not ‘units of production’, they’re small people who deserve to be nurtured with love and dedication; and yes, mothers are driven by an intense maternal desire to be with their children in spite of the sacrifices; and yes, self-ownership through individual wages was an incredibly important step in feminism and who am I, a mother in the workforce, to deny it? All I am saying is that you do not need to believe in universal minimum incomes and legislated entitlements for at-home parents/carers (though it would be nice) to know that there is a problem here when we penalize mothers through regressive tax systems and workplace discrimination for providing essential care work.
And while capitalism helped women mobilise collectively and seek ownership of resources you cannot pretend that capitalism and the patriarchy are not also mutually reinforcing, which is what you are doing when you tell mothers to just stop looking after kids and get a real job, already. Because whenever a mother enters the workplace a deal is being cut somewhere for childcare. Thinking care work vanishes when a woman’s time is suddenly accounted for in paid employment is patriarchal thinking. Either she is negotiating with a partner for him/her to stay home with the children (and obviously, this favours partnered parents over single parents and high-income couples over those in minimum wage jobs); or she is asking a female relative or friend to help out (more unpaid care on the balance sheet); or she is paying someone to look after the children (and fine, if she can afford to and is willing to pay a fair wage to someone for the task; but let’s not kid ourselves, childcare is female-dominated, poorly paid, and has a history of exploiting poor women for the task).
Ok, so this mother is now at work and by being there she sends important signals to her colleagues and employers about the role of women, she also sends a message to her partner (if she has one) and her children about her identity, she’s feeding her family, and hooray! she officially exists in the marketplace. Good for feminism, but as long as we don’t get ahead of ourselves and expect her to be the entire gateway for female liberation. In fact, it’s an uncomfortable notion but dual, high-income households have seen poor households slip even further behind since women joined the workforce. Turns out when rich women are working and marrying rich husbands, who are also working, that this only widens the gap between them and poor households. Go figure. Obviously, I’m not against women in the workforce but I’m saying this stuff is complicated. It will take a few bites of the apple before we get it sorted out.
If feminism, in approaching the unresolved question of mothers, does not recognise that motherhood is messy and emotional and diverse and political then it has missed the mark. It is important not to try to over-simplify mothers, not to stereotype them and not to ignore that their tasks are real work. Again and again in my writing I try to emphasize that last point, because I suspect much of the hostility towards mothers, including between mothers, would fade if we just understood that mothers are people trying to do a job and it’s consuming and tiring. It is difficult to imagine we would be bothered with The Mummy Wars if we were mobilising around the exploitation of unpaid care in our economy instead.
Because how ludicrous, how shameful, how utterly trivial our judgements of a teenage mother suddenly become with this one acknowledgement – that she is working, that it is hard work and it is for no pay and no recognition. Or our judgements of a mother with a disabled child having an outburst in public; or a mother breastfeeding her toddler; or a mother trying to help her teenage child with their drug addictions; or even, a mother blogging. (Oh, you want to tell me how I should do my unpaid work more to your liking? Fabulous, do tell). It sometimes helps to remember that even the most privileged mother is occasionally woken in the middle of the night by her sick toddler and sits bolt upright in bed, bleary-eyed and shivering in the dark, to catch vomit or shit in her bare hands. It may take some of the sting out of her, apparently, selfish lifestyle.
It is an uphill battle though, some of the fiercest defenders of mothering as a task too precious to be sullied with the term ‘work’ are mothers, themselves. There’s a lot invested in an identity when it is all you have. This does not mean that we can’t question the decisions mothers make or criticise the institution of motherhood. In fact, I would be lost as a mother without feminism and its difficult questions. But as feminists we must ask questions and listen to the answers, we must be prepared to change or expand our theories when we get it wrong, and I advise that we tread lightly in these discussions – that we tread as someone walking over the toil of unpaid workers.